Growing up in Ireland makes us part of a world that has traditionally been dominated by England.  Much of our understanding of history is influenced by the English weltanschauung.  

A clear incidence of this influence is the celebration of the importance of Battle of Waterloo in the defeat of Napoleon and the studious neglect of the Battle of Leipzig.  Waterloo was fought by the Seventh coalition, led by an Englishman, the Duke of Wellington.  Leipzig was the victory of the Sixth coalition, led by the Russians under Alexander.

In truth the battle of Leipzig was a far more important engagement.  The coalition fought Napoleon at the height of his power and he was roundly defeated for the first time on the battlefield.  Bonaparte lost the battle, but also lost his reputation for invincibility.  He left the legend of his military genius on the field of Leipzig.

The battle was the greatest fought on European soil until the Great War.  Casualties numbered in excess of 100,000 (higher than Borodino, but spread over 4 days) .  By comparison Waterloo, with 60,000 casualties was a sideshow, a last gasp by an already defeated and spent force.

Ranged against Napoleon where the forces of Sweden, Russia, Austria, Prussia, Saxony and Wurttemberg.  In particular it was seen as a great victory for the Germans in the Alliance.  The painting above is entitled “Declaration of Allied Victory after the Battle of Leipzig, 19th October, 1813”, painted by Johann Peter Krafft in 1839.  This painting is a classic piece of propaganda.  It was repainted at least 6 times, re-arranging the prominence of the allied leaders to suit particular commissions.

If only the British played some small part in the sixth coalition then the painting could have been repainted a seventh time.  We could have seen the British Commander take pride of place at the center of European events.  Then we would know all about the Battle of Leipzig.  Instead when we hear about European wars we hear of Blenheim and Waterloo.

The great commander of the day, the General who marched in only one direction, Forwards, was Blucher.  He triumphed at both Leipzig and Waterloo!  He even has a pair of shoes named after him, and his design became the template for all modern mens shoes.

Song of the Grenadiers:

Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules
Of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these.
But of all the world’s great heroes, there’s none that can compare.
With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, to the British Grenadiers.

Those heroes of antiquity ne’er saw a cannon ball,
Or knew the force of powder to slay their foes withal.
But our brave boys do know it, and banish all their fears,
With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, for the British Grenadiers.

Whene’er we are commanded to storm the palisades,
Our leaders march with fusees, and we with hand grenades.
We throw them from the glacis, about the enemies’ ears.
Sing tow, row, row, row, row, row, the British Grenadiers.

And when the siege is over, we to the town repair.
The townsmen cry, “Hurrah, boys, here comes a Grenadier!
Here come the Grenadiers, my boys, who know no doubts or fears!
Then sing tow, row, row, row, row, row, the British Grenadiers.

Then let us fill a bumper, and drink a health of those
Who carry caps and pouches, and wear the loupèd clothes.
May they and their commanders live happy all their years.
With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, for the British Grenadiers.


What is Love?

I was watching the excellent BBC drama “River” last night.  The protagonist made the point that English has only one word for “Love” but that there are many different kinds of love in the world.  And he is right.  If you want words to describe Snow you speak to Inuit or Greenlanders.  If you want words to describe Rain you can’t get a better language than Gaelic, the Irish and Scots know all about rain in its many guises.

If you want words to describe Love then you could do worse than to go to Greece.  At a quick glance I found at least 7 different Greek words to describe love.

1. Sexual passion
The first kind of love, Eros, is named for the Greek god of fertility. It represents sexual desire and is the source of the word “Erotic”. The ancient Greeks didn’t think of this in a positive way as we do. Eros was seen as dangerous, a fiery irrational state of mind, a form of temporary madness.
Eros involves a loss of self-control that ran counter to Greek philosophy on what constituted a healthy psyche. In modern society we still speak about falling “madly” in love and sex is now recognised as a form of addiction.

2. Friendly love
The second variety of love was philia or friendship, which the Greeks valued far more than the base sexuality of Eros. Philia concerns deep comradely friendship that develops between brothers in arms on the battlefield, public schoolboys etc. It is about closeness and loyalty to your friends.
From the Greek root Philia we get many words about the love of people and things, Philadelphia, Paedophilia, Necrophilia etc.

3. Family Love
Similar to Philia but related to the family rather than friends, Storge embodies the love between Parents and Children. We may choose our friends but we are born to our family. Storge embodies duties of responsibility and care, both from parents to helpless children and later in life from children to ageing parents. One of the great crimes (both secular and religious) in the ancient world was breach of Storge. This was the fate of Oedipus who inadvertently fell erotically in love with his Mother and killed his natural Father.

4. Playful love
Ludus was the Greeks’ idea of playful love, which referred to the harmless affection between children or young lovers. What we may call “Puppy Love” or a “Crush”.
Flirting is a form of Ludus. Dancing with strangers may be the ultimate ludic activity, almost a playful substitute for sex itself. Social norms in many conservative countries frown on this kind of adult frivolity, especially in the Islamic world.

5. Selfless love
The love for “everything” is agape or selfless love. This is love that you extend to all people, whether family members or distant strangers. Agape was later translated into Latin as caritas, which is the origin of our word “charity” and is the highest form of Christian love. It is the love that drives benevolence, volunteering and the best acts of humans.

6. Pragmatic love
Mature love was known to the Greeks as pragma. This was the deep understanding that developed between long-married couples. No surprise that it is the root of the word “pragmatism”. Pragma is about making compromises to help the relationship work over time by showing empathy, patience and tolerance.
Pragma is explained beautifully in “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” as follows:
“Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being “in love” which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.”

7. Self-love
The ancient Greeks called it philautia. They realized there were two types. One is unhealthy, narcissistic, self-obsessed and focused on personal fame and fortune. The healthier version is a strong awareness and appreciation of the self which enhances your wider capacity to love others. It is the self-confidence without the cockiness that we all hope to instil in our teenagers.
The idea is that if you like yourself and feel secure in yourself, you will have plenty of love to give others. It is about looking at yourself in a mirror and saying “I am great, I am worthy of my love, I am worthy of the love of others.”

8.  Patriotism

From the Greek “Patris” which means “fatherland” we get love of our homeland (we Irish never stop singing about that one) which can be bonding or it can be maudlin.  Patriotism has both positive and negative connotations.  It can lead to xenophobia, intolerance, bias, racism, arrogance and a lot of other nasty closed mindedness.  At the same time it gives us the desire to wear our colours and sing our hearts out with total strangers on the terraces next Sunday when we play Argentina!


Three cultural references that define my day today.  Why?

As Williiam Ernest Henley says in his poem “Invictus”  we are all captains of our own souls.  Modern life offers us greater freedom than man experienced at any time in the past.  At the same time we are prisoners of consumerism and materialism.  In short we are all free and we are all prisoners, and we all have the power to choose to be free or caged by our environment.  Ah, the tyranny of choice!

First reference is from Lynard Skynard and is the eponymous song:  Freebird

Second reference is a novella that has fallen out of fashion recently, but is due a return any day now:  Jonathan Livingstone Seagull  It was also made into a film with a soundtrack by Neil Diamond that was very popular in its day.

Third is the poem below.

Caged Bird; by Maya Angelou
A free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wing
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn
and he names the sky his own

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

What’s the point?


There are suicide bombs in downtown Kabul. Shootings and stabbings in Jerusalem.  Twin bombings and 97 dead at a peace rally in Ankara.  Suicide bombings in Chad and Cameroon.

So much for the Arab spring.  The green shoots of hope have turned into the flames of torment and destruction.  Innocents on all sides die as the men of violence drive the dialogue.  But what is the dialogue?

What are the aims, the goals, the dreams?  Are we just seeing a random outpouring of violence by dissatisfied young Muslim men seeking adventure or is there a guiding hand behind all of this?

From where I am sitting the whole thing just seems pointless.

When The Assault Was Intended To The City; by John Milton

Captain or Colonel, or Knight in Arms,
Whose chance on these defenceless doors may seize,
If ever deed of honour did thee please,
Guard them, and him within protect from harms,
He can requite thee, for he knows the charms
That call Fame on such gentle acts as these,
And he can spread thy Name o’er Lands and Seas,
What ever clime the Suns bright circle warms.
Lift not thy spear against the Muses Bower,
The great Emathian Conqueror bid spare
The house of Pindarus, when Temple and Tower
Went to the ground: And the repeated air
Of sad Electra’s Poet had the power
To save the Athenian Walls from ruin bare.


Lutine Bell in Lloyd's of London

Lutine Bell in Lloyd’s of London

The french word “lutin” is translated as “imp” in English.  The feminine form is usually translated as a “sprite”. In truth the realm of the faery world is poorly understood by humans and it is difficult to nail down exactly what a sprite is.  Sprites can be fairies, imps, pixies, elves, dryads and so on.

To my mind the correct translation of Lutine should be Nymph, a nubile female spirit who is associated with water.  There were nymphs associated with lakes, pools and rivers, but also nymphs of the sea.  The most famous of these were the Nereids and in particular Thetis, who married Peleus and gave birth to Achilles.

The name Lutine was given to a frigate of the Royal French Navy.  Originally called the “St Jean” she was berthed at Toulon during the siege that made the reputation of Napoleon.  The British under Admiral Hood took the ship and renamed her the HMS Lutine.

In Oct 1799 the Lutine was carrying gold bullion to Germany when she went aground on a sandbank in the West Frisian Islands.  She sank with total loss of crew and cargo with only one survivor from a crew and passengers numbering over 240.  Also lost was the shipment of gold.  Despite many attempts only a fraction of the bullion has been recovered.

Some timbers from the ship were salvaged and made into a chair for the Chairman at Lloyd’s who bore the insurance.  Also salvaged was the Lutine bell, which hangs in Lloyd’s to this day, where it marks especially important occasions.

Originally the Lutine Bell was rung to mark the fate of an overdue vessel to the trading community, so that everyone would get the information at the same time.  It rang once for a loss and twice for a safe return.  The bell now has a crack and the practice of ringing for returned ships has ceased.

During the second world war the German propagandist Lord Haw Haw quipped that the Lutine bell never stopped ringing during the war of the Atlantic.  In actual fact it rang only once during the war, when the Royal Navy sank the Bismarck

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

……………………John Donne



A memoir to Sylvia, who died the year I was born, head in a gas oven.

They don’t make gas like that anymore.

And Ted, who was blamed by the feminists, the fantasists

who knew, but loved her still.

The Blue Flannel Suit; by Ted Hughes

I had let it all grow. I had supposed
It was all OK. Your life
Was a liner I voyaged in.
Costly education had fitted you out.
Financiers and committees and consultants
Effaced themselves in the gleam of your finish.
You trembled with the new life of those engines.

That first morning,
Before your first class at College, you sat there
Sipping coffee. Now I know, as I did not,
What eyes waited at the back of the class
To check your first professional performance
Against their expectations. What assessors
Waited to see you justify the cost
And redeem their gamble. What a furnace
Of eyes waited to prove your metal. I watched
The strange dummy stiffness, the misery,
Of your blue flannel suit, its straitjacket, ugly
Half-approximation to your idea
Of the properties you hoped to ease into,
And your horror in it. And the tanned
Almost green undertinge of your face
Shrunk to its wick, your scar lumpish, your plaited
Head pathetically tiny.

You waited,
Knowing yourself helpless in the tweezers
Of the life that judges you, and I saw
The flayed nerve, the unhealable face-wound
Which was all you had for courage.
I saw that what you gripped, as you sipped,
Were terrors that killed you once already.
Now I see, I saw, sitting, the lonely
Girl who was going to die.
That blue suit,
A mad, execution uniform,
Survived your sentence. But then I sat, stilled,
Unable to fathom what stilled you
As I looked at you, as I am stilled
Permanently now, permanently
Bending so briefly at your open coffin.

Gordian Knot


Are you also Great?

Our lives entwined little by little
thread by thread and year by year
here a rug and there a sofa
a dog, a painting, a child
until it all became one,
a Gordian knot of strands
that thickened over time
imprinting onto each other
guiding and shaping the skeins
into a complex whole
that puzzled the greatest minds
and looked to endure till death did us part
’till you brought her in
and she cut the chariot free
with a single stroke.

D. Clancy